Thursday, December 13, 2012



Beyond the Chameleon’s Skill by Darius Cooper
(Poetrywala, Mumbai, 2011)

In the opening line upon the first page of Darius Cooper’s poetry collection Beyond the Chameleon’s Skill under the heading “This volume of poems is dedicated to the following:” he announces “I am not a poet”. A peculiar start to a book of poems, but maybe not. There’s little false humility evident here. Cooper acknowledges “one spends a lifetime trying to become a poet”. As a long term academic, having published two critical texts on the cinema (The cinema of Satyajit Ray: between tradition and modernity and In Black and White) Cooper is not at all comfortable with so brazenly labeling himself with the title of practitioner in an art he highly respects. He knows better. As he notes, “one has to dutifully perform one’s aarti for all those significant beings who went out of their way to help you find your own voice, entangling it first with other voices they recommended and then showing you, gradually, how to liberate your own voice from their offered chorus.” (‘Aarti’ is from the Sanskrit and represents a Hindi form of paying respects for dues owed appropriate deities.) Or, alternately as he puts it in “An Archive of Myself”:

My own voice hesitantly emerged
between the rhythms of rock music
and the bhakti beat of abghanas.
poised like that calendar baby
near my uncle’s Multitone Murphy radio
whose short-wave knobs
had to be constantly adjusted
by the skill of a
carefully placed rubber band

Born in India in 1949, Cooper’s been living in the States making regular visits back to his homeland since 1980. Beyond the Chameleon’s Skill brings together poems spanning decades with divergent themes and subjects, including food, race, class, language, faith, and fatherhood. While Cooper’s side-bar life as a scribbler of daily reflections is obviously imbued with insights form his personal life experience. Reading his poems is to not only step into his own set of life circumstances but to also be carried into the lives of others comparatively disadvantaged. Cooper has clearly lived with open ears and bared his imagination to the other wherever and whenever encountered. He documents the all too common life of a battered Indian woman in “Ten-foot-by-ten-foot-by-ten-foot-by-ten”, where the husband has  

her dream of wife and mother,
and the dangling lantern
below the cart
had suddenly burst into flames
burning her wedding trousseau…
her daughter
had started bleeding
a month ago,
and when she had asked him for money
to buy their child
discarded saree rags
lecherously sold
by the housing-colony dhobi
he had sneered:
(and it was one of those days
he was strangely sober)
“And what about your electric bulb?
Or will a lantern do?”
whether wife’s or daughter’s
was of no consequence to him.      

Despite his modesty, it’s clear that Cooper has the poet’s ability of projecting one’s self keenly into other feelings and surroundings beyond his own skin. Repeatedly the speaker’s voice in these poems is that of a woman in a position of struggle and despair.

So, when you leave, stranger,
close the door
with some kind of dignity.
Don’t let that street wind
evaporate all my sweat.
Laid with so much love
and with so little effort,
somewhere in your being.
I’ll lie awake
till your foul midnight breath
invades mine.
Then only will I fall asleep,
certain, that
that woman next to you,
so dutiful, so obedient, so passive,
won’t really have to
care or mind.

(“Under This Woman”) 

Cooper’s poems swing back and forth from his life as husband and father in Southern California to a mixture of memory and reality caught between the India of his youth and the India of later visits, spanning the gulf between dual realities. His struggle for clarity in the poems keeps them refined as precision of concise statement. This holds particularly true with “Twenty Tentative Ways of Approaching God” where Cooper’s dilemmas of his faith are articulated in intimate address to the beyond.  

I have never felt at home
in my body
or in my mind.
Maybe, O lord,
you prefer to live
within the homeless?

The unassuming nature which comes through in Cooper’s writing naturally attracts the reader, providing possible avenues to introspection and states of reflection with which to identify. These poems don’t solve the many problems of our ever increasing international, multi-ethnic lives but they do provide a sheltered space in which to acknowledge the occasion of its passing by and ponder the various ramifications awhile. Whatever may come of our world, Cooper’s poems are doing their part to nudge it in the best possible direction.   


Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. Things are appearing in 1913, Amerarcana, American Book Review, Bookslut, DeathandLifeofAmericanCities, HtmlGiant, Rain Taxi, Shampoo, Switchback, and The Volta.

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